May 1, 2021

Axios Deep Dives

🇺🇸 Good afternoon and welcome to an Axios Deep Dive on the new Washington. Our subject-matter experts, led by managing editor David Nather, narrate the surprises of President Biden's first 100 days — and preview the next 100.

  • Smart Brevity™ count: 953 words ... 3.5 minutes.
1 big thing: Biden learns discipline

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP

Axios politics editor Glen Johnson recalls that in 2001 when he was a Boston Globe congressional reporter, he approached Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joe Biden as he headed for an elevator:

I asked why the nomination for the U.S. ambassador to Ireland — a position intended for a Massachusetts resident — was being delayed. "It's going to probably take a little time, because of going over the contribution limits," Biden said — revealing the nominee had made excess campaign donations.
Seeing my eyes widen, Biden smiled and said: "I'm not sure if I was supposed to tell you that, but there you go."

White House reporters, don't get your hopes up. Biden is succeeding as president in part because he's abandoned his loquacious ways as a senator, Glen writes:

  • During his first 100 days, the new president gave up long-winded speeches, took his staff's counsel about when and where to engage and has been willing to step out of the spotlight.
  • The result has been an ability to deliver on legislation, calm the public mood, avoid distractions and hold stable favorability ratings.

During his 36 years in the Senate, "Amtrak Joe" was a prototypical lawmaker — slicked-back mane, pinstriped suit, never met a microphone he didn't like.

  • His digressions and tangents as chairman of the Senate Judiciary and Foreign Relations committees were legendary.
  • The change started when Biden became President Obama's vice president. Biden no longer was CEO of his own operation but junior partner in the most powerful office in the world.

On the 2020 campaign trail, Biden ended up benefitting from the pandemic:

  • Public events and media free-for-alls were limited, reducing chances for gaffes (although not to zero).

A Washington Post tracker shows that Biden has made more public remarks than Donald Trump at the same point — although Biden has given fewer speeches, interviews and press conferences.

  • But Biden has learned: Just because you're talking, it doesn't mean you have to make news.

📱 Sign up for Axios Sneak Peek, the evening politics newsletter edited by Glen Johnson.

2. The unlikely climate president

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

President Biden campaigned on a vastly stronger climate platform than any major party nominee in history. Now the White House is making enactment a major priority, Axios' Ben Geman and Andrew Freedman report.

Why it matters: It's a remarkable turn, given that Biden entered the race as a moderate, and climate wasn't a top priority during his Senate career.

  • No White House has put climate so high on its governing agenda since global warming burst onto the political scene.

Here's why Biden became the unlikely climate candidate and president:

1. Politics. Democratic voters have become more motivated by the topic. Going big helped Biden woo Bernie Sanders backers to vote in the general election.

  • Biden even moved left after securing the nomination, adding a target of 100% zero-carbon power by 2035 and other provisions to his platform.

2. Opportunity. Democrats' unexpected Senate control, combined with the pandemic, create an opening for big economic recovery legislation packed with climate spending.

3. Science. Major reports in the last few years forecast immense dangers if the world fails to act aggressively.

Sign up for Axios Generate, Ben and Andrew's daily newsletter on energy and climate.

3. Hard exit from Afghanistan

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The biggest foreign policy surprise of Biden’s first 100 days was his decision to act on a promise his predecessors hadn't — the full U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Axios world editor Dave Lawler reports.

Why it matters: The surprise from Biden’s announcement was not the timeline — all U.S. troops out by Sep. 11 — but how definitive it was. 

  • "This is not conditions-based," a senior administration official emphasized. No counterterrorism force would stay behind. After 20 years, America was getting out.

Senior leaders in the Pentagon argued against that approach behind closed doors. Former top commanders, including David Petraeus, did so publicly. 

  • Biden discarded counterarguments — such as the U.S. would be abandoning its leverage or handing its foes a victory — as "a recipe for keeping American troops in Afghanistan indefinitely."

Sign up for David's biweekly newsletter Axios World.

4. Strong arm on Big Tech

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

To the delight of trust-busting progressives, Biden tapped two Big Tech critics for key roles in the administration, Axios' Margaret Harding McGill reports.

Why it matters: Biden’s appointments so far show a sharper turn to the left and a deeper interest in new regulation than some expected.

What’s happening: Biden named Tim Wu as a special assistant to the president for technology and competition policy at the National Economic Council and nominated Lina Khan to be a Democratic commissioner on the Federal Trade Commission.

  • Both are antitrust scholars who argue for increased enforcement in the tech industry.
  • Wu wrote the "The Curse of Bigness" about the dangers of Big Tech's growing power, and Khan rose to prominence after writing “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox” in the Yale Law Journal.

The bottom line: The picks suggest Biden’s approach to antitrust will be tougher than that of the Obama administration, which allowed several big mergers — including Facebook's acquisition of Instagram.

Sign up for Login, the daily Axios tech newsletter.

5. Charted: The stat that matters most
Data: CDC via Our World in Data. Chart: Will Chase/Axios
6. Data to go: What drove the news
Data: NewsWhip. Chart: Sara Wise, Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Looking beyond the ongoing, encompassing storyline of the pandemic and vaccination efforts, the fallout from the Capitol riot was the dominant topic of online interest during Biden's opening months in office, according to exclusive data from NewsWhip.

The big picture: With the sitting president no longer a singular force of drama and controversy, the attention of the news world has reached beyond politics, Axios' Neal Rothschild reports.

Topics outside of the White House captured our attention and emotion in the last 100 days, but they were fleeting.

  • In late January, we fixated on former President Trump's impeachment and then the populist-driven surge in GameStop stock. Then we moved on to Sen. Ted Cruz's international travels.
  • March began with an uproar about suspended Dr. Seuss books and ended with the Georgia voting bill, hatred against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and the British royal family and Rep. Matt Gaetz.
  • In April, infrastructure talk picked up and the nation's eyes turned to Minnesota for the Derek Chauvin trial.

Stories about Biden generated 622 million interactions on social media, compared to 515 million for Trump.

  • But engagement per article for Trump was nearly 50% higher.

📊 Thanks for reading.

Go deeper: Check out Sneak Peek's dataviz series on "Biden's 100-day numbers," starting with a tale of the tape for Biden v. Trump.